“You learn from the part of the story you focus on.”
I first learned of Hannah Gadsby when she joined the cast of Please Like Me’s second season in 2014. Please Like Me is an Australian comedy about a newly out twenty-something played by series creator Josh Thomas, and it deals with mental health issues throughout the run of the show. (Still available on Hulu. RUN, don’t walk, to see it!)
As is typical of me when I really love a show, I ate it up in a matter of days and one of my favorite characters is Hannah. Yes, that’s Gadsby’s character’s name, too, and guess who wrote her? Gadsby herself. The character of Hannah is a lesbian spending time in a mental health facility after suffering a nervous breakdown, and she often uses humor as a coping mechanism. Hiding behind large, dark-framed glasses and an uncanny ability to be ignored in any room, Gadsby inserts little bits of humor throughout each of her episodes. Little did I know at the time, but Gadsby’s essentially playing herself.
Gadsby has been famous in Australia for quite a few years now as a nervously feisty standup, tackling the topics of sexuality and gender with whip-smart observations and barely controlled rants peppered with laughs throughout.
In her new Netflix special, Nanette, Hannah Gadsby constructs and then deconstructs a typical comedy routine. She spends the first half of this extraordinary hour taking on topics like feeling marginalized from her fellow gays (“Where do the quiet gays go?”), and relating acerbic anecdotes of being mistaken for a man. These are the types of stories that her standup has always been known for: stories that humorously tackle her marginalized identity as a lesbian who doesn’t even feel like she fits in the gay community. One of her oft-visited standup jokes throughout the years has been about how she doesn’t enjoy the gay pride flag. “Just six colors stacked on top of each other. No rest for the eye!”
But next Nanette takes us somewhere we rarely go: down to the root of what jokes even are. Gadsby doubles back through most of the jokes in her act and takes them apart, explaining the difference between jokes and stories, and exposing the darker and more honest endings of the hilarious anecdotes we were just enjoying. Throughout the second half, Gadsby lays herself bare, vulnerably discussing her past sexual assaults (yes, plural) and homophobic attacks. Talking about these deeply personal traumas is particularly timely in light of the level of discourse in the world these days. As Gadsby herself says:
This is bigger than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with. Ignorance will always walk amongst us because we will never know all of the things.
By the end of Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s greatest success is that she isn’t funny anymore. She declares she needs to quit comedy, telling the audience that she can no longer participate in the self-deprecation her act requires, because as a marginalized person, self-deprecation is an act of humiliation rather than humility, and she just can’t do that anymore.
She can’t carry her story herself. She needs us all to carry each other and to feel connected. As she exhaustedly takes her final bow and accepts the audience’s thunderous applause, you get the sense that, raw and exhausted, Hannah Gadsby may finally get the rest and release she needs and deserves. May we all get the rest and release we need and deserve, too.
Nanette is available on Netflix.